Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 December 2019

Manchester United need more from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer than a nostalgia project

The Norwegian manager clearly knows the club's ethos but perhaps lacks the skill to implement it

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can feel a one-man nostalgia project so he could be accused of a lack of self-awareness last week when he suggested Manchester United should not live in the 1990s.

In a way, however, they are not. Solskjaer has transported them back to the 1980s, to Alex Ferguson’s awful autumn of 1989.

It was the last time United had this few points after eight league games, or when they went 11 without a win on the road.

In the subsequent bleak midwinter, they only mustered two goals in five matches. They have been similarly impotent now.

If Ferguson famously said his greatest feat was knocking Liverpool off their perch, Solskjaer is powerless to prevent them returning to it.

In their last 17 games, United have 17 points. Liverpool have 17 wins. Since August, United have scored as few league goals as Brighton rookie Aaron Connolly and West Ham left-back Aaron Cresswell.

Sunday’s defeat at Newcastle, where Steve Bruce won the battle of the beleaguered managers, felt like a reality check to Solskjaer, who abandoned his innate optimism to stop taking illusory positives and start sounding depressed by the reality of life at Old Trafford.

Manchester United does that to managers. They look drained, alone and increasingly old. Bitter, too, in Jose Mourinho’s case.

It has proved too big a job for each of Ferguson’s four successors, even though Louis van Gaal and Mourinho were Champions League winners.

So what chance Solskjaer, whose only managerial medals came with Molde and were won in officially Europe’s 21st-best top flight?

Manchester United's record
Manchester United's record

His recent record stands at five wins in 23 matches; the preceding run of 14 victories in 17 feels the most deceptive of false dawns.

What actually compounds United’s plight is the sense that some of Solskjaer’s ideas are actually right. In short, things could be even worse.

If two of his three signings, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire, may have been overpriced, the third, Daniel James, is a bargain. Solskjaer has bought fine players in positions where United required reinforcements.

He has recruited younger, hungrier footballers who actually want to play for the club. None is exactly the new Radamel Falcao or Alexis Sanchez. He has weaned United off their fatal attraction to Galacticos.

That renewed emphasis on pace and penetration offered a philosophy and, during Solskjaer’s spell as the catalytic caretaker, brilliant counter-attacking.

There was at least a semblance of something, until subsequent problems overwhelmed him.

United left him short of at least one forward and two midfielders; when Scott McTominay is far and away the outstanding man in the centre of the pitch, the departed Ander Herrera is sorely missed.

Solskjaer always seemed to lack a strategy to play attacking possession football. If United can’t score on the break, they do not find the net at all, as a tally of 14 goals in 17 matches shows.

A faith in youth is not always progressive – there is scant evidence that Andreas Pereira and Tahith Chong really have promise – but without Solskjaer’s kids, it would be even worse. No one over the age of 23 has scored for United this season.

Too much of Solskjaer’s inheritance consisted of the ponderous, the declining and the substandard: all three, in Nemanja Matic’s case. Some £900 million (Dh4.065 billion) of transfer-market spending into life after Ferguson and United lack an experienced core they can rely on.

Which leaves United marooned in mediocrity, dragged down by their dullness, with a midfield wasteland and a manager who finally seems to realise they are not headed for the sunlit uplands.

Solskjaer has an ethos but perhaps not the skill to implement it. Simply caring for United does not feel enough.

Updated: October 7, 2019 07:18 PM

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